Normally a Saturday ritual, it seemed
we should mark this day with pancakes too,
a breakfast-table recollection
of how feasting and fasting so often cohere.
Even, I thought as I mixed egg and milk
the night before, even mark the way
that air fills the batter like
pockets of life, as these very
ordinary, meager elements of that life -
egg, milk, flour - are mingled
and Spartan fare turns to luxury.
Yet how to explain to those for whom
life's a constant grazing table that
sometimes, though luxury's just
a whisking bowl away from our grasp,
it might be meet to go without,
to join the cousin in the wilderness
with camel's hair and the desert's lean pantry,
to turn our hearts to the sight of Life.
And how to explain to my own heart,
so accustomed to gorging and hairshirts alike,
that all is gift, when the breakfast ends and
the drive to work begins,
when Adam's curse taints feast, and fast
is sometimes only a puff of air?
How to tell the shriven soul
to take the fast and the feast in turn,
to sit at table and taste this grace
as death is at work, yet life is too,
as life is at work in you.
All day the hazardous haze,
yesterday too. I feared to take
the children outside; even the garden
was clothed in the smoke of elsewhere on fire.
we saw the world,
a greenbluebrown orb of God’s grace
heaving with the death of it
and caught the surge
through smoke-drunk eucalypts
of a day that will come yet bids us fight
for the day when we’re no longer burning.
They shall not live who have not tasted death.
They only sing who are struck dumb by God.
(Joyce Kilmer, “Poets”)
And so Zechariah became one of the poets,
hymning the God of Israel with new voice,
for those who have most wept will most rejoice,
while others full of grace who did not know it
could never pen a hymn if life depended.
Grace rarely makes such strict demands of us;
the sweetest song can fall without a fuss
straight on a childless priest, his life upended
with the hope of joy, while the one with seven sons
goes home to richest blessing without song.
The one struck dumb will pen an epic long
before the the news can reach the minstrel’s ear,
and grace will always find alert the ones
who’ve lost their voice and now have ears to hear.
These days when all of the socks are odd
and all your thoughts are scrambled eggs
and, try as you might to talk to God,
nothing much makes any sense,
for the rubbish awaits in noisome piles,
the bills are due and so’s the tax
and the laundry measures its depth in miles
and the devil has pains for idle backs –
unjumble yourself in a heap at Christ’s feet;
ramble and rant to the maker of ants
and all that creeps the planet, replete
with all its tangled, unnecessary plants;
rejoice to be useless and childlike and weak;
rejoice that you cannot make anything work;
rejoice and delight that the end of the week
will come round regardless of what you deserve;
and delight to know that mindless you are
yet He who is mindful of you holds the stars.
Sadly, literature that brings faith authentically to bear on the world is a rare thing. But here are ten novels that use the narrative of conversion to show faith and grace colliding with the ordinary, the sordid and the plain broken. Not all are by professing believers. Not all are orthodox. But all are compelling in their own way, and all make faith feel very real.
9 & 10: A Pure Clear Light and The Essence of the Thing – Madeleine St John
Sydney girl turned wry and urbane Londoner, St John was most famous for her first novel, a witty depiction of a lady’s department store, The Women in Black. But she also wrote three other novels, a kind of loose trilogy, sharing some characters, the same inner London cultured set and a darker and more cynical tone. Yet St John, a late convert, managed to take her characters just to the threshold of faith in utterly unexpected ways. Characters cheat on each other, lie, doubt, and then approach belief without even noticing themselves get there. The last novel in the trilogy, Stairway to Paradise, was the weakest but also hit the faith note with greatest subtlety. Had she lived longer, who knows how deft her touch might have grown.
8: Life After God – Douglas Coupland
A series of vignettes of post-religion North America, this early Coupland slowly arrests you with its quiet ache of longing until you cry out with its narrator, “I need God.”
7: The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy
The only Tolstoy I have finished (and amongst his shortest), Ivan Ilyich packs a punch. Mostly the death-bed resentment of a sick and bitter man who trusts no-one, including his family, this novella takes you right into the psyche of an embittered soul and leads you imperceptibly to redemption.
6: The Moviegoer – Walker Percy
Percy is a curious figure in Catholic literature. Equal parts Kierkegaardian philosopher and satirist of American culture, he sometimes seems strangely lacking in faith. Many readers may find some of his treatments of women to be uncomfortable. But his first novel is a tour-de-force examination of the modern quest for physical sensation and the discovery of grace in the sacrament of everyday life.
5: Barabbas – Pär Lagerkvist
It might be a bit much to call this a conversion novel, but this story of the man who Jesus replaced on the cross has some of the most intriguing discussions of faith that I’ve encountered in 20th century literature. A Swedish Nobel laureate, Lagerkvist explored characters touched by the cross twice in his work, via mythology in The Death of Ahaseuras and more directly in Barabbas. He wasn’t, to my knowledge, a believer, and some theological details here are dubious, but Barabbas’ life after his unexpected exchange with Christ is a fascinating reflection on what it means to be a believer and a reprobate.
4: Saint Maybe – Anne Tyler
Also not a Christian herself, Anne Tyler makes raw and unvarnished Christian faith and redemption the central force of change in this touching family drama by one of the greatest living novelists working in English.
3: Lila – Marilynne Robinson
The third in her Gilead novels, Lila is in my opinion the best. Both a delicate love story and an unpretentious, warts-and-all tale of grace at work in a wounded life, Lila tells the story of Reverend Wilmot’s much younger wife and how she came to experience and trust the love of God expressed in an unexpected person.
2: Viper’s Tangle – François Mauriac
Almost any of Mauriac’s novels could be here but I’ve picked my favourite. Mauriac’s characters are almost always ugly, mean or pathetic, and yet he always portrays them with a tenderness approaching love. The marvel of this one lies in watching the vipers’ nest within its protagonist untangle with God’s hand. Few other Christian writers have explored the depths of humanity with as much grace and honesty as Mauriac.
1: Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
When Andrew Davies adapted this book for film he said he was getting rid of the “God stuff”, which is rather like taking the running out of Chariots of Fire. He failed, because God is central to this novel. All he managed to get rid of was the conversion, which was like taking out Eric Liddell’s gold medal. Don’t watch the film. Read the book instead.